The sense of belonging that people experience when they return to an important place often results in a nostalgic feeling. To understand what this sensation is really doing to the human brain, scientists recorded the brain’s reaction using MRI scans.
The research was conducted by The National Trust and The University of Surrey. One phase encompassed recording MRI scans of 20 participants who were viewing photographs of places and objects that were meaningful to them. They also compared the participants’ brains’ reactions to common places versus places with meaning.
The Brain’s Reaction to Meaningful Places
When participants viewed photos of meaningful places, researchers observed a boost of activity in the area of the brain that processes emotion. This is called the amygdala. In addition, meaningful places also triggered a strong response in the medial prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for positive emotions and memories.
Interestingly, another study on the effects of listening to music showed that people that get chills when listening to music have a higher number of connections in these same areas of the brain.
Dr. Andy Myers, of Surrey University, stated:
For the first time we have been able to prove the physical and emotional benefits of place, far beyond any research that has been done before.
MRI opens a window into the brain allowing us to explore automatic emotional responses, scientifically demonstrating a tangible link between people and places that is often difficult to verbally describe.
With meaningful places generating a significant response in areas of the brain known to process emotion, it’s exciting to understand how deep rooted this connection truly is.
The researcher went on to compare the brain’s reaction to meaningful places with common spaces, they found that:
…special places elicit a significantly higher response in the amygdala than common places. This suggests that the mere image of a place that is meaningful is able to trigger an automatic, unconscious emotional response in the amygdala.
Places are More Emotionally Charged than Objects
In addition, scientists discovered that people have a much greater emotional connection to places rather than object. This is why places can make you nostalgic but objects rarely do. The researchers concluded:
Places that are special to us generate a stronger automatic emotional response that is not seen for meaningful objects. Therefore, it may be argued that places contain a greater degree of emotional charge than objects.
This discovery attests to the claim that life experiences add more to our overall happiness than possessions.
Why It’s Important to Visit and Protect Your Meaningful Places
Another phase of this study included a quantitative online survey of 2000 participants. This phase examined the emotional link between people and meaningful places. It also sought to understand the impact on people when places important to them no longer exist.
The results showed the following:
- An overwhelming 86 percent of survey respondents felt like the meaning place was a part of them.
- Another 73 percent correlate the place to their personal identity.
- 63 percent of respondents experience joy and contentment when visiting their meaningful place.
- Two-thirds agree that the place of meaning makes them feel calm.
- 79 percent have a desire to share the connection they have with the place with others
- Nine out of ten agree that they would be upset if their meaningful place was lost.
Nino Strachey, Head of Research and Specialist Advice for The National Trust, stated:
This research confirms places we love not only shape who we are, but offer deep physical and psychological benefits making it even more vital that we look after them for future generations.
The National Trust researchers determined:
While visiting meaningful places brings a whole host of benefits, these can be broadly grouped into three key areas – mental wellbeing, nostalgia and security & survival. Natural places in particular promote greater wellbeing, as well as places from the here and now. The continued presence of these meaningful places allows people to reap the benefits throughout their lives.
The full National Trust report can be found here.
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